CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's task force on substance abuse is recommending West Virginians be required to get a doctor's prescription before they can buy cold medications that contain an ingredient used to make illegal methamphetamine in clandestine labs.
The Governor's Advisory Council on Substance Abuse voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to support legislation that would make medicines with pseudoephedrine prescription-only drugs.
West Virginia law enforcement agencies have seized more than 463 meth labs across the state this year -- a record number. Criminals use pseudoephedrine products, such as Sudafed, to manufacture meth.
"There's empirical evidence that going prescription reduces the number of meth labs," said the Rev. James Patterson, who sits on Tomblin's task force and heads the Partnership of African American Churches. "We need to reduce the number of meth labs we're finding in West Virginia."
The pseudoephedrine prescription requirement is one of a dozen recommendations the substance-abuse advisory council plans to forward to Tomblin's office as part of a report in December. The council's reports in 2011 and 2012 didn't include a recommendation to make the cold medicine a prescription drug.
On Wednesday, council members voted on numerous proposals to combat substance abuse. The prescription-only requirement for pseudoephedrine seemed to get the most votes.
Department of Health and Human Resources officials refused to release vote totals after Wednesday's meeting.
House health committee Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, plans to introduce legislation to make pseudoephedrine prescription-only. He praised the council's action.
"That's good news. Actually, it's great news," Perdue said after the meeting. "It shows that people trying to do something about substance abuse believe this is a priority item."
Some council members said they changed their minds -- and now support the prescription requirement -- over the past year.
"If you look at the devastation [meth] causes to families, to the lives of people and children, you have to vote for this," said council member Mark Drennan, who works as executive director of the West Virginia Behavioral Healthcare Providers Association. "It's a scourge."
The council's recommendation is expected to include an exemption for tamper-resistant drugs containing pseudoephedrine, such as Zephrex-D and Nexafed. Both products are nearly impossible to convert to meth.
"That will break [meth makers'] business," said Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University professor who spoke to the council by speakerphone Wednesday.
Humphreys said requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine products wouldn't necessarily lead to a decrease in meth use. Addicts likely would turn to meth imported from Mexico, he said.
"I'm not promising people won't use meth. They will. But it will get rid of the labs," said Humphreys, a Morgantown native and former national drug policy advisor to Presidents Obama and George W. Bush.
Only Oregon and Mississippi have statewide laws that require a prescription for cold medications containing pseudoephedrine. Counties and cities in other states have similar local ordinances.
"Our state is suffering from an increase in meth labs," Humphreys said. "We know the solution: It's putting these products on prescription-only status."
Also Wednesday, the substance-abuse task force voted to recommend that the governor oppose any legislation that would legalize marijuana for medical or recreational use.
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